The Colonial Gaze & Settler Surveillance


The Male Gaze, Kelli Clifton, 2011, acrylic on canvas, beads.  Courtesy Kelli Clifton.

Clifton’s painting confronts the male gaze with a regiment of 48 staring eyes made of areolas and formlines.   The concerted female Indigenous perspective observing the viewer evokes the need for the mainstream colonial viewpoint to interrogate its own patterns.  For centuries, Canada has been taking, controlling, and misrepresenting Indigenous cultural identities for the purpose of indulging the colonial gaze.

Canadian settlers founded their country on the act of taking what was not theirs to take — Indigenous land and resources — without consent and without giving anything back.  Canada made laws that criminalized Indigenous cultural practices while at the same time stealing ceremonial items and imprisoning these items within colonial institutions where they would be unable to fulfill their purpose of participating in community, and instead subjected against their will to the colonial gaze.  This historical context must be considered to understand why cultural appropriation is harmful and why Canadian teachers should focus on the voices of Indigenous activists who can help students develop self-awareness on these patterns that need to be broken, rather than teaching about Indigenous cultures in a way that merely romanticizes and objectifies, feeding the gaze. 

Another pattern of looking that has been normalized in colonial society, and that continues to cause harm is what Leanne Simpson refers to as settler surveillance.  In her talk Restoring Nationhood she describes how her efforts to practice traditional ceremonies on the land with her children are “trumped by settler surveillance”.  She recounts being harassed by settlers as she accesses Crown land with her children for ceremonies, even after obtaining “permission” from colonial authorities. 

Biidaaban (The Dawn Comes) is a beautiful animated video directed by Amanda Strong that features the theme of survivance amidst settler surveillance. 

Historical Thinking Questions

Check out the links below and answer the following questions: 

Potlatch Ban     RCAP Vol. 1  Read p. 267-270

Return of Sacred Objects     Sacred Pipe at the ROM

1.   How does Canadian legislation from the 1920s continue to negatively impact the ability of Indigenous communities to practise their cultures? 

American Psychological Association on Mascots    “Chief Wahoo” short documentary   Stop Caricaturing Us  Listen   I’m not your Mascot (Loren Spears video – scroll to bottom)

2.  Why are stereotypes of Indigenous identity created by white settlers so pervasive in Canadian society?  What happens when settlers control depictions of Indigenous identity?  (Cause & Consequence)  

Totem: The Return of the G’psgolox Pole

3.  Why do you think the Swedish government thought it was okay to take the pole when they took it?  What are the different versions of the story for how it was taken?  (Historical Perspective) 

4.  What function does the totem pole have for the Haisla and Henaksiala people of Kitamaat?   How has its removal impacted them?   (Cause & Consequence) 

5.  What has changed in terms of the Swedish government’s position and the Haisla community’s position regarding the totem pole’s location?  What are some reasons for these changes?  What has remained the same?  Why? (Continuity & Change)